Page 3 of Smoke in Mirrors

“You seem to know a great deal about me.”

He smiled. It was the kind of smile that made her want to take a couple of steps back, turn and run for her life. But that would be the worst thing she could do, she told herself. She knew enough about animal behavior to know that predators only got more excited by fleeing prey.

“Not nearly as much as I’d like to know about you, Miss Hutton.”

There was nowhere to run, anyway. He had her cornered in this small, barren room. She stood her ground.

“How did you get hold of Meredith’s email address book?” she asked.

“That was easy,” Thomas said. “I came here and helped myself to her laptop just as soon as I heard the news about the crash.”

The casual admission left her speechless for a few seconds.

“You stole her computer?” she finally managed to ask.

“Let’s just say I borrowed it.” He gave her another one of his chilling, humorless smiles. “In the same spirit that she borrowed one-point-five million bucks from the Bethany Walker Endowment Fund.”

Oh, damn. This was bad. This was very, very bad. Embezzlement had been one of Meredith’s favorite sports but her preferred victims had been other cons and scam artists who had not been in a position to complain too loudly. And to the best of Leonora’s knowledge, she had never gone after a score of this magnitude. Trust Meredith to go out with a bang, not a whimper.

And trust her to leave me with the mess to clean up.

“Are you a cop?” she asked warily.

“No.”

“Private investigator?”

He shook his head. “No.”

Not the law. She didn’t know if that was good news or bad news.

She cleared her throat. “Did you know Meredith personally?”

“Oh, yeah, I knew her,” he said. “Of course, like a lot of folks who had that privilege, I wish I had never met her, but hindsight is always twenty-twenty, isn’t it?”

Understanding descended with the inevitability of a shroud.

“I see. You were one of her—” She broke off, searching for a diplomatic turn of phrase. “The two of you were, uh, acquainted socially?”

His mouth was a flat line. “Not for long.”

He had been one of Meredith’s lovers, then. For some reason that news was oddly depressing. Why should she care whether or not this man had had an affair with Meredith? He certainly wouldn’t have been the first. It occurred to her that he might have had the distinction of being the last, however.

“I’m surprised,” she said, without stopping to think. “You’re not her usual type.”

Oh, jeez. What in the world had made her say that?

It was the truth, though. Meredith had had a long-standing policy of sticking to men she could manipulate. Something about Thomas Walker sent a message that he wouldn’t play the puppet-on-a-string game for long, not even for a woman as savvy and sexy and as skilled in manipulative techniques as Meredith.

If she could see that stark truth, Leonora thought, Meredith, who’d had preternaturally acute instincts where the male of the species was concerned, had almost certainly seen it also. Maybe that was why the relationship hadn’t lasted long.

“Meredith had a type?” Thomas looked mildly surprised by that information. Then he nodded in a thoughtful way. “Well, hell, I guess you’re right. She did have some distinct preferences when it came to her social life, didn’t she? Far as I can tell she only dated men she figured could help her further her own agenda.”

Leonora wondered if the real problem here was that Thomas had been badly hurt when Meredith’s true nature was revealed. A broken heart could generate a lot of pain, and pain could produce anger. Maybe he was grieving in his own macho, masculine fashion.

She offered a sympathetic smile.

“I’m sorry,” she said very gently.

“Yeah, me, too. More than sorry. When I found out that she had embezzled the one-point-five mil I was kind of pissed off, if you want to know the truth.”

Okay, he wasn’t exactly prostrate with grief. He was mad.

“Uh—” Inspiration failed her.

“What about you?” Thomas asked much too pleasantly. “Any fond memories of the deceased? How far back did you two go?”

“We met in college. We’ve kept in touch all these years, but—” She swallowed and tried again. “I didn’t see much of her in the past few months.”

Not since I found her in bed with my fiancé, she added silently, but she saw no reason to bring up that dismal subject.

“You should probably consider yourself fortunate,” Thomas said. “Meredith Spooner was bad news. But, then, I’ll bet you already know that.”

Old habits were hard to break. The instinct to cover up, defend and make excuses for Meredith kicked in, just as it always did when crunch time hit.

She raised her chin. “Are you absolutely certain Meredith embezzled that money?”

“Positive.”

“How did she manage that?”

“Easy. Took a job as an alumni endowment fund development officer at Eubanks College. As the person in charge of the money on a day-to-day basis, she had access to all the accounts and to a lot of wealthy alumni. Add in the fact that she had the morals of a con artist and great computer skills and you have the recipe for embezzlement.”

“If what you say is true, why are you here? With that kind of money involved, I would have thought you’d have gone to the police.”

“I’m trying to avoid the cops.”

“When there’s more than a million dollars missing?” She saw a chance to go on the offensive and grabbed it. “That sounds very suspicious to me. It certainly casts some doubts on your story, Mr. Walker.”

“I want to avoid the cops because that kind of bad publicity can really hurt an endowment fund. Undermines the faith of potential donors. Makes them question the integrity of the folks entrusted with the responsibility for managing the money, know what I mean?”

She’d had enough experience with the delicate politics of academic endowment fund-raising to realize that he had a point. But that was no reason to let him off the hook. Besides, he didn’t look at all like the kind of person who got involved in college endowments. That business was run by suave, cultured types who wore good suits and who knew how to make nice with wealthy alumni.

She gave him her most polished smile. “I think I’m getting the picture here. My turn to take a wild guess. Could it be that you haven’t reported the missing money to the authorities, Mr. Walker, because for some reason you think you might be a prime suspect?”

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